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Thursday, February 14, 2013
Katie Pettibone serves as mentor on the sea

By Bonnie D. Ford

It's one thing to watch from afar and feel positive about the slow but tangible advances being made by women athletes in Arab countries. It's something else again to travel to that part of the world and exert a hands-on influence.

That's what a few seasoned international sailors, including Californian Katie Pettibone, have done. Their mentoring efforts will be on display this month for the second year in a row as an all-female, half-Omani crew competes in the two-week race around the Persian Gulf known as "SATT," or Sailing Arabia -- The Tour.

"It's their journey -- we're just there to facilitate it,'' said Pettibone, a 41-year-old lawyer who balances elite competition with a job as a lobbyist for the Civil Justice Association of California. She is one of four experienced sailors, led by British skipper Dee Caffari (whose résumé includes solo trips around the world in both directions), combined with four young Omani women to sail Al Thuraya BankMuscat, a Farr30 yacht, around the gulf. The race began Sunday in Bahrain and will end Feb. 25 in Oman, with stops in Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah.

Johanna brought out the best in her teammates. I could go one by one and describe how much better each athlete became during the time they ran with her.

-- Betsy Emerson

Pettibone's own travels have been extensive. The Michigan native was on the first all-female America's Cup crew in 1995 and competed in the prestigious event twice after that. She has survived some harrowing episodes, including a dismasting in the treacherous waters around Cape Horn and a capsizing off Australia. This is a different kind of voyage -- a compelling and at times emotional trek across cultural differences.

The project to train female sailors in Oman began in 2008 with the backing of longtime ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Said, whose progressive views on gender stand out in the region. Sail Oman, a private-public partnership that runs programs for all levels from children to elite, invited women to work out alongside men at their training facility and put them through a certification course. Top sailors such as Great Britain's Shirley Robertson and Samantha Davies were recruited to come in and instruct the Omanis.

The endeavor involved a lot more than pulling foul-weather gear over traditional Muslim clothing. The Omani women, most in their 20s and university graduates, had some experience with sports as schoolgirls but no background in serious strength or cardio training. Some couldn't swim. They lacked basic knowledge about nutrition and had to be weaned off a protein-light, sweets-and-carbs-rich diet.

None of them had ever contemplated treating a sport like a job. They had to contend with dubious family members and outsiders who openly questioned whether they were tough enough to contend with complex and ever-changing conditions at sea, not to mention the occasional nausea.

"At a very young age, we're told we can do anything we want and have it all and we're equal with men,'' said Pettibone, who wrote extensively about her 2012 SATT experience in a blog on her website. "Suddenly, you're in a place where being a professional female athlete is a new concept.''

Some reporters who talked to the Omani women when they were training last year asked them, "What's the point? Once you get married, you'll have to stop,'' Pettibone recalled.

"I was surprised at how much they loved it, the adventure and competition of sailing. It's demanding. It's uncomfortable. You go to the bathroom in a bucket. You wear the same clothes a couple days in a row. There are eight moving parts -- balance, wind, pulling on this rope at this time -- it's a very complex thing to learn all at once, and it can be frustrating. But they were so excited about the opportunity and so eager to please that they didn't want to get anything wrong.''

Two Omani women, Raya Al Habsi and Intisar Al Toobi, were selected for Al Thuraya's crew last year and lost their novice status forever as the boat finished fourth in a fleet of nine. Both are back for this year's race, and Al Habsi, an outgoing 24-year-old with a university degree in finance, said she's prepared to take over solo duty at her station in the bow.

Al Habsi said her family worried about the venture initially, thinking she was taking on "a man's job."

"Now, it's 'OK, she can do it,'" Al Habsi said by telephone last weekend.

"I'm stronger than I was before, physically and mentally. I'm more patient.'' She also has more muscle, thanks to regular workouts with a personal trainer. "I can see the difference,'' she said. Her long-term ambition is to compete in the Volvo Ocean Race around the world.

Pettibone had to master a few new skills herself last year as racing speed sometimes had to take a back seat to helping build the younger women's confidence. "I'm such a competitor, and there were times I had to squash my competitiveness and the urge to say, 'Let me do this, I can do it better,'" she said. "I will have higher expectations this year, and I'll hold them accountable for those.''